A matter of injustice
Three murder cases in the news recently would seem to have little in common. Michael Morton is a Texas pharmacist convicted in 1986 of murdering his wife. Jeffrey MacDonald is the Princeton- and Yale-educated Green Beret medical doctor in prison for the 1972 murder of his wife and two small children. The “West Memphis Three” are the teenagers convicted of the 1993 killing of three boys in Arkansas.
One aspect all these cases share, however, is the inordinate attention paid to them. Next month, for example, “West of Memphis,” a documentary produced by Oscar-winner Peter Jackson, opens ‑ at least the third film about the case. As for MacDonald, adding to the stack of books and hours of television already devoted to him, the celebrated documentary filmmaker Errol Morris recently weighed in with a 500-page book, “A Wilderness of Error,” arguing that MacDonald was “railroaded” by “unethical” prosecutors. Morton’s case, meanwhile, has been featured on “60 Minutes” and NPR’s “Weekend Edition” as well as in a New York Times editorial and a recent Times op-ed column by Joe Nocera.
Something is amiss when you compare the media’s fixation on these cases with that of Edward Lee Elmore, a South Carolina man who served
25 30 years for a crime he did not commit. There have been no editorials, no “60 Minutes” reports and, most disturbingly, no investigations. Yet the evidence of prosecutorial misconduct makes what happened to Elmore look far more egregious.
Elmore was sent to death row at age 23 and spent more than half his life there, convicted for the murder of a 75-year-old widow in Greenwood, South Carolina.
Morton was released last year, after 25 years in prison, when his lawyers found exonerating evidence that the police and prosecution had withheld at the time of his trial. He was falsely convicted, his lawyers said, as the result of a “sin of omission.” Similarly, in the West Memphis Three case, the police and prosecutors ignored evidence that the three men were innocent. (They were released last year in a legal agreement that allowed them to maintain their innocence while pleading guilty.)
Under the landmark Supreme Court decision, Brady v. Maryland, the prosecution is required to turn over all potentially exonerating evidence to the defense.
But withholding evidence is benign compared to what happened with Elmore, who was convicted through acts of commission. The prosecution didn’t just withhold exculpatory material ‑ there is proof that police and investigators manufactured and planted critical evidence.
They claimed, for example, to have found Elmore’s pubic hair on the victim’s bed. Yet the investigators didn’t take any pictures of the bed, nor did they take the sheets as evidence, because “there were no obvious blood or other stains present,” as an investigator later testified at a hearing.
The wall and carpet in the victim’s bedroom were soaked in blood, as was the robe she was wearing. Yet only three pinprick-size blood spots were found on Elmore’s jeans, which the police took from his bedroom. Like the “hairs on the bed,” there is strong evidence that this blood was planted.
One investigator removed the jeans from the evidence locker and had them for two weeks, without any legitimate reason. He wasn’t assigned to the case at the time ‑ but had grown up across the street from the victim and was convinced Elmore was guilty.
Writing on the Elmore case, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals used the words “outright dishonest” and “deceit” to describe the work of the police and investigators.
Those are uncharacteristically harsh rebukes. When federal judges use language like that, the Justice Department might be expected to launch an investigation or the United States attorney in South Carolina to convene a grand jury.
Maybe they haven’t, in part, because there has been no public outcry. Where are the editorial writers and columnists or even the celebrities who spoke up for the West Memphis Three and Morton?
This raises an uncomfortable question. Another thing Morton, MacDonald and the West Memphis Three have in common: They are all white. And Morton and Macdonald are both educated professionals. Elmore, however, is a semi-literate, mentally disabled black handyman.
A “Freedom Fund” has been set up to provide financial support for the West Memphis 3 as they adjust to life beyond prison. Elmore, who was released in February – still maintaining his innocence but agreeing to plead guilty as part of a legal agreement to get out of prison after 30 years for a crime he didn’t commit – now lives in poverty in rural South Carolina.
If America has true equality under the law, then the Justice Department should not be waiting until civic leaders or celebrities take up a cause before investigating. The United States attorney in South Carolina should convene a grand jury to look into the Elmore case – to begin to deliver some real justice.
PHOTO: Edward Lee Elmore being led into the Greenwood County courtroom for a hearing in December 2000. WSPA